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Small Town With A Big Heart

What makes a great Southern Christmas? Start with lots of white lights, add a festive parade, and watch as a community opens its heart to its temporary residents.

At least that's how they did it this year in St. Francisville, La., as Tracy Smith when she visited for The Early Show's "Tour My Town" series.

St. Francisville resident Terri Ryan e-mailed The Early Show, and read part of her note on camera: "Dear Early Show: St. Francisville, La., is a small, quaint river town rich in history. … We have an annual 'Christmas in the Country' celebration. … Our main street is transformed with white lights all up and down the street. It's magical at night. … You must come see my small little town, full of people with great big hearts."

"There's two kinds of people in Louisiana," St. Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquilla told Smith. "The people who live in St. Francisville, and the people who wish they did, because the best thing about it is it's just a nice place to live."

And then, Smith said, there are the people lucky enough to have landed in this town looking for shelter after Hurricane Katrina.

"People just began to flock in," said Joe Ratcliff, pastor of St. Francisville's First Baptist Church, "and our church played a role of support and care for these people."

Ratcliff's parishioners heeded his call to help, Smith says, especially his daughter, Rebecca.

"We set up laptop computers," she told Smith, "and we would work from about 12 midnight 'til 5 in the morning, doing nothin' but searchin' names, tryin' to find out where they were. … That was the most rewarding part of them all, putting families back together."

This town of 1,800 residents opened its doors, its churches, its hotels, its private homes to more than 2,000 people displaced by Katrina, Smith said.

For Rebecca Ratcliff, what started as a little bit of volunteer work at the church soon became her full time job.

"I quit working my job," she said. "I resigned and just started doin' this full time."

She did so because of the children.

"If you could get 'em to laugh or smile or anything, you felt like you had done somethin' good that day," she said.

"She's just the most loving person that I can imagine," said Jamilah Peters-Muhammad, who wound up in St. Francisville after being displaced by Katrina. "Selfless. Totally selfless. She gives herself to us totally."

Muhammad is in St. Francisville with her three grandchildren.

"Someone used the term 'homeless,' " she said. "And I never thought in my life that I'd be classified with that term. And around this time of year, it does get harder. … Instead of looking for gifts, we are looking for a home."

Adjusting to a new community hasn't always been easy for the evacuees.

"It's different," said Ashley Nzinga Jones, 11. "Nothing's the same. But at least I got my family and I know where they are."

"We'll still get to do Kwanza and Christmas, and we'll still have our family with us," added Craig Jones Jr., 10.

Rebecca Ratcliff has started a Christmas wish list for each child and, "Hopefully, we'll be able to get at least one of their presents off the wish list. But we're also gettin' 'em all bikes. So I'm very excited about that.

"We wanna try and bring the holidays to 'em as best we can. It won't be exactly like home. But we're sure gonna try."

St. Francisville is doing everything it can to make Christmas special for the children of Katrina, Smith said, even giving them a spot of honor in the annual parade.

"This will always be home to me now," Muhammad said. "And even when I go back to New Orleans, I can see myself coming back to St. Francisville to visit."

If they can't be at their own home for the holidays, Smith said, maybe this town is the next best place to be.

There are still several dozen families living in a hotel in St. Francisville. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has extended their hotel coverage through Feb. 7.

Ratcliff is working to find all of the remaining families a long-term place to live before that deadline arrives.